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'Safe' Ebola made for research

5th February 2008

Researchers in the United States have geneticially engineered a strain of the Ebola virus which is safer to study under laboratory conditions without fear of causing a deadly outbreak.

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The new strain could speed up the development of effective vaccines against the disease, which currently has no treatments or cure.

The research team at University of Wisconsin-Madison disarmed Ebola by confining it to a set of specialised cells.

In a report on their work published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, lead author Yoshihiro Kawaoka, a professor of pathobiological sciences at the US-based University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, said the altered version of Ebola did not grow in any normal cells.

Currently, Ebola can only be studied under the toughest biosafety protocol, known as Level 4. Only a handful of laboratories in the world are able to comply with these conditions, severely hampering research into the deadly disease.

The researchers engineered Ebola without its VP30 gene, which enables it to take hold and grow within host cells.

Instead, the altered form of Ebola can only grow in specially engineered cells which produce the VP30 protein. In all other respects, it is identical to the unaltered version.

Students of basic biology, vaccine developers and technicians screening for anti-viral compounds will be able to use the safe version of Ebola now, according to Kawaoka.

The strain used was one found in Zaire. A separate strain was identified in an outbreak in Uganda last year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Experts said the research could speed up the development of treatments for Ebola, although they pointed to a continuing need for further safety testing in living primates before the altered virus could be given the all-clear.

A WHO spokesman welcomed the development, saying he hoped it would increase the possibilities for learning more about Ebola and improve the chances of finding an appropriate antiviral treatment or vaccine.

 

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